A new Magna Carta? - Political and Constitutional Reform Contents


1. The United Kingdom is one of the very few democratic countries in the world without a codified constitution. Professor Robert Blackburn and Dr Andrew Blick of the Centre for Political and Constitutional Studies at King's College London state: "A distinction is drawn between a constitution as the rules determining political conduct, which the UK like any other country has, and a codified constitution, that is a single document or collection of documents within which they are contained, which the UK lacks."[1] Among other democracies, only Israel and New Zealand do not have codified constitutions.

2. The Cabinet Manual—the guide published in 2011 which sets out the procedures under which the Government operates—describes the United Kingdom's constitutional arrangements as follows: "The UK does not have a codified constitution. There is no single document that describes, establishes or regulates the structures of the state and the way in which these relate to the people. Instead, the constitutional order has evolved over time and continues to do so. It consists of various institutions, statutes, judicial decisions, principles and practices that are commonly understood as 'constitutional."[2]

3. The United Kingdom has a rich constitutional heritage. As the 800th anniversary of the agreement of Magna Carta approaches, and people celebrate a significant moment in a long constitutional history, it is also an exciting time to look forward and to discuss the United Kingdom's constitutional future. Magna Carta is widely acknowledged as the foundation of the concept of limited government, subject both to the law and to the people. Eight hundred years later, this concept is still a cornerstone of the United Kingdom's constitution.

4. We are living through a period of considerable democratic and political change. During the last two decades, under Governments of different political complexions, significant developments have taken place, including devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the removal of most hereditary peers from the House of Lords, freedom of information legislation, the establishment of the Supreme Court, the introduction of fixed-term Parliaments, and the domestic legal entrenchment of human rights. Also, the United Kingdom has experienced its first coalition Government in recent times, and the traditional two-party system has a less certain future.

5. At the same time, some existing democratic arrangements have been written down in publicly available documents such as the Ministerial Code, the Civil Service Code, and the Cabinet Manual, and the Acts creating the devolved arrangements in most countries of the Union.

6. These changes, and attempts to write down existing arrangements, have, however, been piecemeal. At the beginning of the 2010 Parliament, we felt that the time was right to engage the public on the back of a comprehensive evaluation of the United Kingdom's democratic arrangements.

1   Professor Robert Blackburn and Dr Andrew Blick, Centre for Political and Constitutional Studies, King's College London, A Literature Review (Error! Bookmark not defined. ) Back

2   Error! Bookmark not defined., 2011, p 2 Back

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Prepared 10 July 2014